The fleeting nature of life is the subject of one too many poems, but to the survivors of sudden cardiac arrest (SCA), that reality is more than a cliché. Indiana native Jeff Utzinger has experienced that reality first hand. A 48-year old father of three, there was a high likelihood that Jeff should have been one of 356,000 Americans who dies of SCA every year.
While out on a customary run one morning in June 2017, Jeff narrates during an interview, “About two miles in, I collapsed due to Sudden Cardiac Arrest – so I was told – I have no memory of the event. In fact, the last memories I have were from the night before… and I can only remember things now starting around a week after my event.”
Jeff has a double stroke of good luck to thank for being alive today; the altruistic actions of a then-stranger who ironically happened to find him, and a police officer with a portable device life-saving device, an automatic external defibrillator (AED).
When Bill found Jeff on the ground unconscious and not breathing, he was not even supposed to be there. Incidentally, he just happened to have “left a little later for work and took a different route than normal that day…crazy.”
What followed is a sequence of events that underline the importance of two steps in the Chain of Survival: CPR and early defibrillation.
“He (Bill) stopped and called 911 after realizing I wasn’t breathing, and the 911 dispatcher walked him through CPR. Bill had never done CPR before and after listening to the recording of the 911 call, I’m still amazed at how calm and under control he was…looking over someone who wasn’t breathing, not knowing how long I had been lying there, and never in his life having experience at responding to something like this. He was told to prepared to do 600 chest compressions, stopping after every 30 to let the dispatcher know if I had started to breath…outside of a couple of agonal gasps, there was still nothing. Roughly 4 minutes later, a local police officer showed up with an AED…thankfully they all carry one in the town I live in (I have since found out this is fairly rare for all police cars in all towns to have one in their car). The AED was applied, and it delivered a shock…and moments later, the EMS arrived and took me to the ER. Bill was left there, tears and sweat rolling down his face, wondering what just happened. Well, what happened was he saved a life…my life…and really, the lives of my wife and 3 kids.”
Without these critical interventions, it is almost certain that Jeff would have died in minutes. He is cognizant of that fact, and it has driven him into a deeply philosophical but also practical and passionate understanding of SCA.
“I was admitted to the hospital as a John Doe – I keep my phone locked, or at least I used to, so the officer had no way of finding anyway to call…he just saw the screen saver of my kids and hoped someone would call me soon. After an hour or so, my wife did call me…and hearing about that phone call between her and the officer is still unsettling to me. I was unconscious for most of that day – family and friends showed up – those local and from across the country. The doctors wanted to leave me in the coma for a couple of days, but apparently after hearing my kid’s voices later that night I wanted back to my family. I fought at the tubes and the doctor finally decided to take everything out and see how I responded. Everyone prepared my family for the worst…although it was likely I was going to live, it was completely unknown how much brain function I would have – no one knowing how long I had been on the ground before Bill showed up. After I was awake, and answering a few questions incorrectly (thought it was 2014 and Obama was President), I recognized my wife and kids…and the rest is really history.”
“It was very difficult to get my head around – having no memory of anything about the event or recovery. But I believe this in my heart: 1) Be more thankful in life – it’s’ precious and can be taken away in an instant…regardless of what you do, we’re not really in control…so enjoy every minute and everything you have. And 2) Give back – be an advocate, do my part in educating and building awareness around SCA…specifically, that it can happen to anyone – it doesn’t discriminate based on age, the fit / unfit, or any other demographics. And the low (~7%) survival rates for out of hospital SCA events just aren’t acceptable. We can drastically improve these rates by creating more awareness, educating the public, and getting more AEDs in our communities. The solutions are simple…not easy, but simple. And I’m passionate and feel compelled to do my part in moving the needle and seeing more people survive these events.”
Six weeks later, and with an ICD (internal defibrillator) placed in his body, Jeff returned to full health with a new resolve brought about by his traumatic ordeal. Together Jeff and Bill started “Be like Bill,” a social call that encourages people to “jump in and act” when they see others in suffering.
Jeff’s story is a testament to how indiscriminate SCA can be. Many people attribute cardiac arrests to a poor lifestyle, but if that were always the case, Jeff would not have had his life-changing brush with death. Jeff’s daily routine is hardly sedentary. “I take pretty good care of myself and workout to prevent this kind of thing. And to this day, there is no medical reason why this happened – no family history, nothing structural with my heart, no reason at all.”
With more than 350,000 people experiencing out-of-hospital SCA, there is a significant chance of any one of us being affected. The provision of more AEDs in public places and to first responders like the police officer who responded to Jeff’s emergency is critical to improving survival chances.
Equally as critical is timely activation of the Chain of Survival through CPR and contacting emergency services just like Bill did. Jeff concludes, “You don’t HAVE to know CPR – it helps and can prepare you, but it’s not required to be a good human being…nothing is, outside of just taking action. That’s my wish – that everyone is ready to Be like Bill if called upon.”
“I know there are legislation issues with education and having more AEDs in the market – price, cost for program management, liability concerns, etc…,and I know there’s a tough hill to climb with it. But in the meantime, if everyone knew we could make an impact while we figure out a broad-stroke, universal solution, it would mean the difference of a lot more people getting to tell their personal survival story.”
“My story should be the norm, not the exception.”